Shooters Aren't Sexy: To Succeed, Gun Control Must Be Accompanied by an Assault on Gun Culture

Article excerpt

In just over two weeks' time, conveniently after the Conservative Party conference, Lord Cullen is to release his report into the Dunblane massacre, arbitrating upon the fiercely contested question of the control and ownership of hand guns. The report is unlikely to satisfy the extreme and over-simple positions on either side of argument, but Cullen does offer a chance to embark upon a new course in dealing with guns, if we have the will to take it.

It can be assumed that Cullen's recommendations will fall some way short of an outright prohibition of handguns. Rather, he will advocate tighter firearms licensing and the storage of privately owned weapons -- minus ammunition clips or firing mechanisms -- in gun club premises, where new, more exacting security requirements will be applied. The clips or firing mechanisms would be kept separately, in secure conditions, at their owners' homes. Such proposals would remove weapons from where they are most insecure: private homes.

For shooters such proposals are better than they dared hope three months ago. The report will, on the other hand, disappoint the emerging gun-control groups and their newly formed Gun Control Network. What should the politicians do?

John Major has little option but to accept Cullen. Although initially he hinted at support for a ban, he drew back and invited Lord Cullen to deliberate precisely in order to avoid an emotionally driven, ineffective response of the kind that followed the Hungerford massacre in 1986. Labour has indicated that it might champion the populist instinct that demands a total ban on handguns (70 per cent of the public supports this, according to opinion polls). But this is not an easy course: it will mean resisting the balanced arguments of an official inquiry and ignoring the advice of senior police officers. What Labour should do is to prepare itself for a sustained assault on the more complex phenomenon of Britain's growing gun culture, for that is where the real problem lies.

The existence of a burgeoning gun culture can hardly be denied. In the decade to 1994 the police report a 142 per cent increase in the use of handguns in crimes. Yet it is too simple to call for a ban when the evidence is that making guns illegal merely increases recourse to illegal guns.

Japan (strict firearms controls, low homicide rate) and the US (liberal attitudes to firearms, very high homicide rates) are often called in evidence to suggest a general relationship between the size of the legal gun stock and the level of the criminal use of firearms. And it is true that both Michael Ryan in Hungerford and Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane held firearms certificates for the handguns used in their murderous rampages. But the vast majority of crimes involving firearms are not committed with legal or licensed weapons and there are thought to be three to four times as many illegal weapons as legal ones in Britain. Nine hundred or so firearms (shotguns, handguns and rifles) are stolen each year. Unpublished work recently undertaken for the Metropolitan Police area found that, of a sample 55 firearms recovered from crime scenes, only 2 had ever been licensed. …